Origins of Geometrical Fundamentalism
Why did Le Corbusier and other architects come to believe that this denuding of the complexity of the environment was necessary and even wonderful?
The story goes back to the early days of the 20th Century, when many people were desperate to escape the horrors of the 19th Century. Artists were exploring radical new forms, and political groups were exploring new ideas about social organization. At the same time, industrial technology was rapidly changing.
Architects, eager to be part of this emerging new order, began to make connections between the changes in art, politics, and technology. Perhaps they could be the artists who made sense of this new world order? Perhaps they could actually help to usher in an exciting new age?
Nevertheless, by today’s standards, those promising changes in technology were primitive. They relied upon standardization, replication, and stripped-down forms — the only ones that were possible with the relatively crude technology of the time. (Henry Ford famously said, “you can have any color of car you want, as long as it’s black.”)
Some people found this disturbing. But in 1908, a young architect in Vienna, Adolf Loos, wrote a highly influential article that turned this concern on its head. Are we alone unable to have our own style, Loos asked — to do what “any Negro” [sic], or any other race and period before us, could do? Of course not: because we are more advanced, more “modern”, our style must be the very aesthetic paucity that comes with the streamlined goods of industrial production — surely a hallmark of advancement and superiority.
In effect, our “ornament” would be the simple minimalist buildings and other artifacts themselves, celebrating the spirit of a great new age.
The “Papuan”, Loos argued, had not evolved to the moral and civilized circumstances of modern man [sic]. As part of his primitive practices, the Papuan tattooed himself. Likewise, Loos went on, “the modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate”. Therefore, Loos reasoned, those who still used ornament were on the same low level as criminals — and Papuans.
Built on an essentially racist worldview, Loos’ watershed essay inaugurated a pervasive fallacy about the alleged connection between minimalism and modernity: here indeed was the seminal birth of geometrical fundamentalism.
Loos’ influence was codified in his most famous dictum, “ornament is a crime”.
Loos’ naïve mistake, perpetuated by those who came after him, was to suppose that geometrical minimalism is an intrinsic virtue. It can be a virtue, when other added elements would create disorder. But more often we face the opposite problem: a minimalist pattern is incomplete, and it requires very specific additional components to generate coherence.
The view of modern physicists and mathematicians might be most helpful in understanding when a geometric pattern can be simplified, and when doing so would damage its essential structure.
The rule is best summarized by a famous remark by Albert Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible — but no simpler.” When it comes to biological systems — including human environments — that level of simplicity is often surprisingly complex.
In the century since Loos’ slogan was blindly adopted, great progress has been made in the mathematics of complexity. We now know about the vast complexity of “irreducible systems”, which nonetheless can be generated by — but not reduced to — simpler algorithms.
Much of the biological complexity of the world is in fact “computationally irreducible” — that is, it may be generated from a simple algorithm, but the only way to accurately express the structure is to actually run the algorithm completely. The world, it seems, is not reducible to a minimalist schema. And we are all the richer for it.
However, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously noted, we humans have a dangerous tendency to over-simplify the world, and to confuse our own simpler models for the true complexity of life. He called this error “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” — a confusion of our abstract models of reality with reality itself, leading to over-simplifying actions that are life-damaging.
Christopher Alexander made a similar observation when he argued famously that a city is not a tree— that is, it is not a simple hierarchical structure, but in its complex geometrical relationships, it has important forms of overlap and redundancy, which the human mind finds difficult to grasp.
We like to over-simplify the world into neat “tree-like” schemes — but in turn, when imposed on real cities, these schemes can go on to produce enormous damage to the physical structure. This, in fact, is the tragedy of the 20th Century in dozens of cities around the world.
Worse, architects replaced their concern with the real aesthetic expressions of healthy places, with the abstracted, commodified qualities of aesthetics-for-aesthetics’-sake, enjoyed by an élite of self-proclaimed connoisseurs. When this practice damages the environment, then something on the order of professional malpractice is occurring — nothing less.
In the realm of science and mathematics, by contrast, our geometric science has been enormously enriched by insights into the complex geometries of nature.
We now understand the vastly complex fractal patterns all around us, and the iterative, “algorithmic” processes that generate them. We understand the often-chaotic behavior of “attractors”, and the way they form clusters in regions of evolutionary solution-space — structural configurations representing Christopher Alexander’s idea of “patterns” (see below).
We also understand more about the “biophilic” reactions that human beings have to such patterns in their environments — probably because humans have evolved to make sense of such a world of complex yet ordered form and process. We are beginning to appreciate that people crave an information-rich environment, and through the course of their lives in a city need more than a series of solitary experiences of art composed according to arbitrary abstract criteria.